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Procter & Gamble’s Deb Henretta on Digital Innovation

With a bold call for revolution, P&G's group president of global beauty care kicked off the 2013 Beauty Summit.

Deb Hebretta

With a bold call for revolution, Deb Henretta, group president of global beauty care at Procter & Gamble Co., kicked off the 2013 Beauty Summit.

Henretta, who has made transformational changes to the structure of P&G Beauty during year one of her tenure, took as her topic digital innovation, and she didn’t mince words when it came to her assessment of beauty’s progress. “Leadership in the beauty industry evangelizes a digital figure, yet still under invests. The music does not match the words,” she declared, quoting from a conversation she had with digital guru Scott Galloway. “Are we really embracing digital as a transformational technology or do we hold too tightly to traditions?”

Citing some revolutionary moments in the history of the industry, from metal lipstick tubes to at-home hair color, she continued: “We have to step it up and innovate at the speed of digital, lest we risk becoming the Polaroid camera, the analogue telephone or the business pager of our industry.”

Henretta said that what’s needed is a fundamental shift in thinking from digital technology as a marketing tool to digital being fully integrated into all of a brand’s activities. She coined the term “GPT,” or “general purpose technology,” to describe her vision. “Digital must become integral to everything we do — how we think, how we design, how we manufacture,” she said.

The first step, Henretta said, is to envision the future, imagine the impossible. Noting that Nike has far transcended footwear by embedding digital into all aspects of its activities, she implored beauty companies to do the same. “We must make skin care more than a lotion for the body and lipstick more than adding color to your face,” Henretta said. “Imagine a lipstick that can tell you when it’s time to reapply, a lotion that can give you feedback about your skin’s health.”

Digital also fundamentally changes a brand’s relationship with consumers, Henretta said, particularly when it comes to product development. “It makes creation not just about designing for the consumer, but designing with them, from the start,” she emphasized.

Creating that connection is crucial to forge emotional bonds with consumers, because digital is a double-edged sword, both engaging and impersonal. Later, in response to a question, Henretta elaborated when asked about incorporating analytical data into beauty. “I have a love-hate relationship with data,” said Henretta. “It’s all about balance. You need to combine data with guts and judgment and that’s what creates breakthrough.”

Henretta concluded by acknowledging that change must start at the top. “To lead this revolution, we all have to roll up our sleeves to get the work done,” she said. She shared one way P&G Beauty has started to make her vision a reality, with its first crowdsourcing program for developing innovation, in which every employee can comment on new product ideas.

Most impressive, though, was that the program took only a “few hours” to develop, Henretta said, noting that speed is a crucial component of success today. “The world is no longer moving at a linear rate, but an exponential rate,” she said. “It is the pace of Generation Y and all generations to come.”